The Conference of the Birds – A Groundbreaking Celebration of Multiculturalism.

The Conference of the Birds – A Groundbreaking Celebration of Multiculturalism.

August 31, 2016 | Author: Vinita Sud Belani | Founding Artistic Director of EnActe Arts

One of the most cherished benefits of my years in Paris is a deep friendship with arguably the world’s best storyteller of our era, the oft-decorated yet deeply humble French playwright, novelist, essayist and prolific scriptwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, winner of the Lifetime Achievement Oscar for his body of film work.

Theatre-lovers may know him for a different reason – he is the playwright of The Mahabharata, the play (and subsequently the movie) that took the world by storm in the 80’s under the direction of Peter Brook. It was however, not his first foray into transforming an epic from an ancient culture into a distilled piece that worldwide audiences could appreciate.

In the early 70’s Carrière, Brook and twenty-two actors from The International Centre for Theater Research, including great actors like Helen Mirren and Yoshi Oida and author/journalist John Heilpern embarked on journey across sub-Saharan Africa. They carried with them a copy of The Conference of the Birds by the famed 12th century Persian poet Farid ud-Din Attar, widely considered to be one of the greatest of all Muslim mystical writers and thinkers. They used the stories within the book to create theater for villagers across their journey. From this epic voyage was born the play of The Conference of the Birds.

A mystical allegorical rendering of Sufi belief, The Conference of the Birds takes the viewer on an epic journey. The Hoopoe, considered the wisest, exhorts them to join her on a quest for their one true King, the Simorgh, a mythical Persian bird that approximates the western Phoenix. Under the leadership of the Hoopoe, the birds—each representing a human fault that prevents man from attaining enlightenment—embark on an arduous journey across seven valleys. Along the way the Hoopoe recounts many parables to dispel their doubts. When the birds reach the end of the journey, they discover that the Simorgh is no more than a mirror that reflects them selves.

I now live in the Bay Area, where no single ethnic group makes up more than 30% of the population. There is no dominant culture, no traditional melting pot to assimilate into. Immigrants cherish the American dream and hold onto the best of their ethnic heritage. Their art is however preserved and promoted within their own cultural silos. If we are to thrive as a vibrant and harmonious community we need to develop systemic ways to engage with each other in congenial, cohesive ways that help us recognize our common humanity while celebrating our socio-cultural differences.

Having never seen Peter Brook’s direction of the play I have Jean-Claude’s blessings to boldly imagine the story as an exuberant affirmation of the commonality and the deeply spiritual nature of the human psyche.  I approach my good friend Usha of Sangam Arts to join EnActe Arts in a production the likes of which has never been attempted before. We invite ten ethnic dance companies representing the wide diversity of the Bay Area to collaborate with fifteen actors of varied ethnicities, ranging in age form nine to eighty-four, to create a sumptuous, vibrant, visually extravagant version of this play.

This is a play that is open to so many interpretations! As Director I make a decision very early on that we will keep the parables very Persian in their look and feel but the journey of the birds will be filled with references to contemporary populist culture. So I give the bat a little ‘Antonio Banderas as Zorro’. Ay, Dom Perdido – me gusta mucho tus palabras!! Hoopoe gets a hint of Rafiki, a natural fit. And if Gregor the Falcon insists his King’s name is Vladimir, well who am I to question his story!

One of the most magical constructs of the play is how the birds interact with and get into the stories they are being told. I extend my blend of contemporary culture meets Persian purity to these scenes. I am always moved when Marie the dove, a very Southern belle, acts as the voice of the Dervish praying for deliverance from his all-consuming love for the princess. The moment embodies why we are doing this play.


Getting into each others’ lives and celebrating the best in all of us.

In a world that is inexorably moving towards mistrust and violence, Art becomes the weapon of Ahimsa. As art, ahimsa and multiculturalism are so much a fabric of India it becomes natural for Indian Americans to lead the charge in promoting a calmer dialogue on assimilation. And what better time to promote peace than on the anniversary of 9/11.

Join us on this epic journey!

What: The Conference of the Birds – an EnActe and Sangam presentation

When: Fri Sept 9th 8 pm, Sat Sept 10th 2 pm and 8 pm, Sun Sept 11th 4 pm.

Where: Mexican Heritage Plaza, School of Arts and Culture, San Jose.

Tickets: $25, $35, $50, $100.

Special 20% Indiaspora discount! Use code COB_IND

Tickets at

Run time 100 minutes. Language English. Age PG, 8+

About the project – The Conference of the Birds 

Jean-Claude Carrière – Interview with playwright Jean-Claude Carrière

Fb event page –

About the Author:

Vinita Sud Belani is the Founding Artistic Director of EnActe Arts, a theater and performance arts non-profit that presents stories from the South Asian canon to universal audiences and acts as a talent development platform.

Belani holds a BS/MS in Computer Science from BITS Pilani, an MBA from HEC, France and a Diplôme in French Language and Culture from the Sorbonne.

She has lived and worked in the tech industry in nine countries across four continents and speaks seven languages.